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‘Punished’ for being sexually abused in York County: Jehovah’s Witnesses’ culture of cover-up


Sarah Brooks was always a faithful Jehovah’s Witness, until she was sexually abused by members of her church. She was 15. Church elders punished her and her abusers. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)

The church isolates its members, shames and shuns victims who come forth and instructs elders to keep reports secret. And children are being abused.

Sarah Brooks was 17, riding in her dad’s pickup, when she told him.

She had always been a daddy’s girl, she said. She was a tomboy growing up, playing with the boys, and later, when she could wield a wrench, working on cars with her dad. After some detours in life, she would work as a welder. She liked working with her hands, and she and her dad were close.

It was hard to tell her dad. She knew what had been happening to her was wrong. She knew that it needed to stop. She felt deep shame and deep guilt. She was the victim, but still, she felt that what had happened to her was her fault, that she was a horrible, dirty person. She knew there would be consequences. The people who did those things to her had warned her not to tell, they said that if she did, she would be ruining lives and that nobody would believe her and that she would be the one to suffer in the end.

Still, she needed to tell. It was wrong. Something had to be done. So, she told.

Sarah told her dad that Joshua and Jennifer had sexually abused her over a period of months, starting when she was 15. Joshua was Joshua Caldwell, a friend from church. Jennifer was Jennifer McVey, married to Sarah’s brother and having an affair with Caldwell. Caldwell was 12 years older than Sarah; McVey, six. Sarah had been working for the couple cleaning out houses that were in foreclosure.

She had met them through their church, the Yorkana Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thought that working for them would be safe and good, the church being a close and cloistered community.

Her family had lengthy history in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The church, and its community, was their life. They had little contact with the outside world, staying with their own, save for going door-to-door to convince others that their religion was the one and true path to salvation in these, the final days of human history.

When they arrived home, her father told her to go to her room while he discussed what she had told him with her mother. Her parents called two of the elders of the church – the Jehovah’s Witnesses doesn’t have professional clergy, leaving the shepherding of the flock to appointed elders, members of the congregation – who came to the house and questioned Sarah.

They sat in the living room – Sarah, her parents and the two elders, who happened to be Caldwell’s father-in-law and brother-in-law – while the elders interviewed her, asking her questions about what had happened, making her provide details of the most shameful and intimate secrets she had been warned not to divulge. She told them about the sexual games they played in the work truck and at job sites. She told them about Caldwell and McVey coming to her home and abusing her, separately and together. She told them everything. They went over it again and again, making her tell them, again and again, about what happened.

It felt like she was dying, Sarah recalled. As she was interrogated, she had a sinking, heavy feeling in her stomach. She was terrified.

“I don’t know if there’s a word to describe it,” she said, telling the story recently on the deck of her home in southern York County. “Everything was so fresh and raw, and they kept making me repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.”

She felt terrible, humiliated, embarrassed, shamed. At the end of it, she still felt terrible, but at least she felt that she had done the right thing, that the abuse would stop and that the elders would give her justice by punishing her abusers.

She was the victim. She would be OK, she thought. She trusted her church would do the right thing.

She was wrong.


Martin Haugh points to some Jehovah’s Witness’ literature while talking about his reasons for leaving the religion, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. Haugh was an elder at the Red Lion Kingdom Hall. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)

‘A recipe for child abuse’

As the attention of the world focused on the sexual abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church, there was another scandal brewing in a considerably smaller faith group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It follows many of the same themes – mostly, holding the reputation of the organization over the regard for the well-being of victims – that have been exposed in a number of such scandals, from the Vatican to the Boy Scouts to the Penn State football program to USA Gymnastics, a conclusion drawn from resolved criminal and civil court cases and interviews with survivors of abuse and former members of the church.

Like those other institutions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses created an insular culture that one former member has called “a recipe for child abuse,” a culture that they believe has protected abusers and victimized victims.

“They believe that they are separate from the world,” said Mark O’Donnell, a former Witness from Baltimore who has researched cases of child abuse in the church and has published a number of articles about abuse under the pen name of John Redwood. “They control every aspect of their members’ lives.”

And being separate from that world means, in cases of child sexual abuse, not cooperating with authorities when such cases come to light, he said, choosing instead to handle them within the walls of the Kingdom Hall.

In instances in which cases are referred to secular law enforcement, resulting in the issuance of a search warrant, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are reluctant to turn over notes and records of meetings with abuse victims, making it more difficult for authorities to investigate such cases.

And in some cases, the victims of abuse, in addition to facing repeated questioning by church elders, were punished themselves, their punishment announced to the congregation.

“It’s a very closed society,” said Barbara Anderson, a former researcher for the Jehovah’s Witnesses who has cataloged numerous cases of child sexual abuse within the church. “They want to keep everything inside.”

How Jehovah’s Witnesses handles child abuse

Martin Haugh was destined to be an elder. He was a fifth-generation Jehovah’s Witness, and his family, with the exception of two uncles with whom he’d had no contact because of their rejection of the religion, were all in the church, and all very committed to its principles.

His father had been appointed an elder of his Red Lion congregation in 1972. Members of his family had served in the highest echelons of the church. An uncle serves as the Witnesses’ director of international study, assigned to Kenya to spread the word about the faith throughout the world. His sister worked at the Watchtower headquarters in New York, taking a vow of poverty to serve the church.

The church, he said, was “the only thing I knew about.” As members of the church, his family didn’t socialize with non-members. They didn’t participate in community events. They did not vote. They kept separate. Something as simple as buying a ticket to a local fire company raffle could be the cause of discipline, as it was perceived as gambling.

When he was appointed as an elder, he was sent to a one-week training course, instructed on how to manage a congregation, how to discipline members who had sinned and how to judge offenses to determine the penalty, from something called “reproof” to “disfellowship,” different levels of shunning intended as penance to those who violated the commandments. The only instruction elders were given regarding child sexual abuse was to contact headquarters when they received any reports. “We’ll tell you what to do,” was the advice, he recalled.

As an elder, he had been called upon to assist when his Kingdom Hall was subject to a search warrant from detectives investigating Sarah’s case, years after the abuse had happened.

He had had experience with such reports. Just a few years before, his 4-year-old daughter had been abused by a member of the church.


A stack of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature sits on the table as Martin Haugh, an ex-elder at the Red Lion Kingdom Hall, looks over them, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. The last straw for Haugh, before leaving the religion, was an email instructing him to discard certain literature. After doing his own research and learning about major contradictions in the faith, Haugh decided to leave. He’s now a non-believer. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)

A religion shrouded in secrecy

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is an American-born religion, tracing its roots to 1870 in Pittsburgh when Charles Taze Russell and some others began a Bible study group that rejected many mainstream Christian beliefs, including the immortality of the soul, predestination, the existence of hell and other long-held tenants Christians derived from the Bible, according to a history of the church compiled by the

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